At L.A. Prep, artisanal food makers can rent their own kitchens
Matt Walton, who currently uses a co-packer for his caramel corn, is looking forward to the flexibility of having his own kitchen at L.A. Prep. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
L.A. Prep, set to open this month, will rent 54 commercial kitchens to artisanal food manufacturers.
Small food makers who don't want to use shared kitchens can rent their own facility at L.A. Prep.
Matt Walton's caramel corn was a hit. Gourmet shops were clamoring for more, hooked on a recipe handed down by his grandmother.
But Walton hit a wall. He couldn't find a commercial kitchen to expand production.
His company was too big for his home, and too small to afford the tens of thousands of dollars needed to renovate a leased space to meet health codes.
A new project in Lincoln Heights called L.A. Prep is aimed at helping Walton and a growing number of local artisanal food manufacturers that are primed to one day hit the shelves of Costco or Trader Joe's.
Located in a 56,000-square-foot industrial building, L.A. Prep will rent 54 commercial kitchens outfitted with stoves, stainless-steel countertops and walk-in refrigerators to tenants, who can come and go as they please.
"There really isn't a place for the people in between like me," said Walton, who founded his Zlicious Confections in 2012 and signed a one-year lease for a 333-square-foot kitchen at L.A. Prep at $3,600 a month. "There's a huge need for this."
Shared kitchens and food incubators and accelerators have grown in response to the rise of specialty foods — think small-batch snacks, cheese and olive oils that show up in pricey delis and your neighborhood Whole Foods.
The specialty foods industry grew 21% from 2012 to 2014 to $109.6 billion, according to the New York-based Specialty Food Assn.
Many in California — the epicenter of the artisan food business — have been aided by the state's cottage food law, which was enacted two years ago allowing the production of food in homes for limited sale.
The challenge for new producers is how to scale up at an affordable cost, which is why many of the current small commercial kitchens for lease allow entrepreneurs to share space or even rent by the hour. (Some restaurants will also defy laws by renting out their kitchens to small food manufacturers.)
Many turn to co-packers, contracted manufacturers that serve several food producers. That's cheaper than leasing a kitchen but comes with less control over quality and flexibility with production volumes.
Walton of Zlicious currently uses a co-packer but is looking forward to the flexibility of his own kitchen at L.A. Prep just in case he has to fill a big order from a major retailer.
Other avenues for up-and-coming food businesses include universities. Rutgers in New Jersey and Oregon State University are among a few institutions that operate food innovation centers, which focus on development rather than full-scale production.
Zlicious Confections owner Matt Walton, who currently uses a co-packer for his caramel corn, is looking forward to the flexibility of having his own space at L.A. Prep in Lincoln Heights.
Construction is underway at L.A. Prep, which will rent 54 commercial kitchens outfitted with stoves, stainless-steel countertops and walk-in refrigerators to tenants.
Jean-Claude Setin, owner and master butcher of Le French Butcher, is photographed inside his business space at the L.A. Prep facility, which is still under construction.
Some leased commercial kitchens are mission-driven, such as La Cocina in San Francisco, which serves low-income food entrepreneurs in the Mission District.
None, however, approach the scale of L.A. Prep.
"Most of them are much smaller," said Ron Tanner, vice president of philanthropy and government and industry relations for the Specialty Food Assn., who counted 110 food incubators across the country. "This is a very ambitious project. They aren't looking so much for businesses in the start-up phase but maybe people in business for two to three years."
Set to open later this month if all goes well, L.A. Prep will house bakers, paleo diet chefs, pasta makers and a butcher, among others.
More than half the kitchens have already been leased at a cost of between $2,000 and $9,000 a month, depending on the size of the space.